Mercy, one of Oakland's most popular vintage shops, didn't end up on Piedmont Avenue by accident. Store owners Karen Fort and Rachel Cubra did extensive location research before settling on the funky little nook—they swear the store found them—that's been Mercy's home since 2009.
Eight years ago, in the throes of the recession, while other stores on Piedmont were being forced to close and other locales in San Francisco, Walnut Creek, and even San Jose may have yielded more foot traffic, Fort and Cubra saw a diamond in the rough on Piedmont Avenue.
Oakland, they said, is where they lived and wanted to have a community presence. They felt an intimacy in that the population was unique, and they wanted to join it and help it grow. As time has passed, Piedmont Avenue has returned to its bustling self. Mercy's owners said Oakland had far fewer retail options eight years ago. They are encouraged to see Piedmont Avenue blossom as a shopping destination with beautiful, thoughtfully curated and locally owned stores.
This growth has allowed them to foster a sense of community with other local shop owners, while also growing their own business—an ever-expanding collection of vintage pieces, from classy to crazy and everything in-between. Knowing that recycled clothing is a good market in a bad economy, the owners said Mercy has thrived by keeping a quickly rotating stock of unique high-end pieces. The store has offered designs from early '90s like Commes des Garçons and Maison Margiela, finds from famed 20th-century designer Mariano Fortuny, and classics like Christian Dior and Balmain.
Self-proclaimed "vintage geeks," Fort and Cubra love the thrill of a good find, whether they discover it at vintage buying opportunities or while digging through boxes in an old apartment in San Francisco. The story behind the clothing is what really inspires them, they said. For them, finding rare pieces rich with history is what it's all about.
In this way, they're able to deliver prime goods to their loyal customers, whom they encourage to push the envelope and try on things that may be a little outside of their comfort zone. Not only does vintage fashion expressly, and almost purposefully, go against fast fashion and the waste it creates, it also keeps people coming back to the store, especially for well-worn tees and perfectly softened vintage Levi's. For Mercy's owners, the idea that something is "in" and then "out" of style doesn't make much sense. They believe in buying less, creating personal style, and curating a wardrobe of beautifully made heirloom pieces and stock the store accordingly. We can all agree: There's something special about finding a piece of 10-, 20-, or 30-year-old clothing and making it ours.
In the future, Mercy's owners plan to open a second location—exciting news for current and new customers. In the meantime, you can visit Mercy Vintage, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays at 4188 Piedmont Ave., Oakland. Find Mercy online at www.MercyVintage.com.
Justin Carder, owner of Oakland's E.M. Wolfman Books, is a painter by trade, but when an opportunity arose, he wanted to do something more than open a gallery. Why a bookstore? Because they "are fairly accessible places," Carder said. "People love to spend time there. You can host events there. You can gather community there. You can open the doors and see what happens!"
The store opened in 2014, and since then it has become something of a mainstay in Oakland's literary scene. Carder is "pretty open to things," and tries to say yes to everyone who wants to host a reading or an event. Carder said he believes "it's important for people to have easy access to space for public events, so I don't charge people to host things. The idea is that if people come down and just buy books while they're there, the space will thrive."
It has thrived over the years, allowing Wolfman to expand from just selling books to launching its own publishing program in 2015, which is "part of celebrating the community that's surrounding the bookstore." Many people approach Carder with project proposals, and he said he makes an effort to support them, to "help them find a shape for the work—to reach a larger audience or to become accessible for more people." Since its inception, the program has produced three books and other projects and has evolved into a residency program, allowing Wolfman to give money to artists to create work, which the store then publishes.
This fall, Wolfman's publishing endeavor will present a new collection by Black Salt Collective, and there will be more to come. Its residency program is thriving, and it is looking forward to working on bigger, better projects. These days, Carder has his hands full managing two locations—the initial space at 410 13th St. in Oakland, and a new secondary location in MacArthur Annex, at 644 40th St. Keep up with Wolfman online at www.WolfmanHomeRepair.com.
In early 2016, Lily Alegria bought a bright-red sand-filled school bus that had formerly made a few trips to Burning Man.
"The moment I laid eyes on her, I saw her potential and knew she was mine," Alegria said.
By November, after much renovation, the Alé Katz mobile boutique was ready for her debut. Alegria, who comes from an entrepreneurial family, spent years learning the retail business before opening Alé Katz. Alegria found the idea of a bus appealing, instead of a brick-and-mortar space because, as she said, "I really wanted something different. I decided a bus was the perfect fit since it has windows all around—great for natural light."
You may have seen the mobile boutique tooling around the East Bay with an assortment of goods in tow, such as cards and prints by Oakland brand People I've Loved and handmade home décor from Akela Designs. About the products she carries, Alegria maintained, "I try to source as much local and U.S.-made as possible. It is really important to me that I create a relationship with each one of the makers included in the shop."
Shopping in an old school bus is a unique experience; don't pass up the opportunity to explore Alé Katz. Follow the bus at www.AleKatz.com (you can also shop online) or book the bus for a private shopping party.
Store Openings on Fourth Street:
Fans of Berkeley's Fourth Street corridor will be happy to hear of two new additions. The first, Madewell, J. Crew's younger, trendier sister, opened its doors in April. Madewell celebrated its opening with a party featuring sips and snacks, with 10 percent of proceeds going to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. The store is at 1901 Fourth St. and open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays.
California clothing brand Amour Vert has also established a presence on Fourth Street, opening at 1840 Fourth St., just a few doors down from Madewell. It officially opened in July. Fans of this brand love it for its sustainable practices—with every T-shirt purchase, the company plants a tree. Other products are primarily manufactured in the United States, and the brand maintains a zero-waste philosophy. Like its name, the brand's style evokes French chic, but with an all-American twist. Visit Amour Vert in Berkeley Sunday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and on Saturdays 10 a.m.-7 p.m."
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Karen Fort, left, and Rachel Cuba, owners of Mercy Vintage, are "vintage geeks" who love the thrill of a good find. Photo by Pat Mazzera.